In Long Day's Journey into Night, one could easily characterize Edmund as a victim. Bad stuff just happens to him. His painful birth caused his mom to get hooked on morphine. Worry over his tuberculosis causes her to get hooked again. His dad is so penny-pinching that he wants to pack Edmund off to a second rate sanatorium to recover from his illness. On top of all that, his brother admits that part of him wishes Edmund were dead. The fact is: Edmund is a different kind of character than the other Tyrones. Unlike them, he is relatively blameless.
OK, you might be able to pin his tuberculosis on him, on account of his drinking. Of course, tuberculosis is bacterial. While excessive drinking can lower your immune system, it doesn't directly cause the disease. Jamie and Tyrone drink like fishes and they don't have it. We should also point out, in defense of Edmund, that his father and brother have always downright encouraged him to drink. His father gave him whiskey (as medicine) when he was a baby. His brother actively sought to turn him into a drinker out of jealousy. It's understandable that Edmund drinks so much.
So what's a relatively blameless character doing in Long Day's Journey Into Night? From a structural standpoint, Edmund's likable character could give the audience a window into the play. His forgiving nature helps us understand the other incredibly flawed Tyrones. His presence also tends to make Mary, James, and Jamie seem a little more human and identifiable. Yes, without the blameless Edmund, we might never feel the full tragic pull of the play.
Note: The character of Edmund is also a relatively flattering self-portrait on O'Neill's part. Check out "What's Up with the Epigraph?" for more on the autobiographical qualities of the play.
Edmund is also the peacekeeper of the house. He's the glue that keeps this family from falling apart. Edmund can normally be found trying to silence one of his angry, accusative family members. His verbal smackdowns are lovingly administered in the hope of avoiding worse conflict. Edmund tends to say things like – "Cut it out, Papa!" (2.2.43) and even "Mama! For God's sake, stop talking" (2.2.15). Notice that these statements come in the span of just 28 lines. In the Tyrone household, a peacekeeper stays busy.
Of course, when there's a fight to be had, Edmund doesn't shy away. When his father finally crosses the line by arranging to send him to a junky, state-run sanatorium, Edmund puts his in his place. He yells, "Papa, haven't you any pride or shame?" (4.1.126). Sounds harsh coming from a peacekeeper, but Edmund has good reason to be mad. Right after setting up the cheap sanatorium, James went and wasted money on a new piece of property. Our peacekeeper also tempers his tongue lashing by saying that it's "not because of the rotten way you're treating me," it's because James is showing himself to be a "stinking old tightwad" in front of the whole town (4.1.126). It seems like Edmund is only trying to save Tyrone from himself.
You may question Edmund's peacekeeping credentials when he hits Jamie. Both times, though, Edmund does it in defense of his mother. When Jamie callously calls Mary "the hophead," Edmund punches him right in the face (4.1.187). A few lines later, Mary comes down the stairs lost in a morphine haze. Jamie cruelly remarks, "The Mad Scene. Enter Ophelia!" (4.1.212). For this vicious attack, Edmund smacks his brother across the face. In these two cases, Edmund is a peacekeeper more along the lines of Wyatt Earp. It takes a little violence to keep the peace around this town. Jamie even thanks his brother after both incidents, admitting he deserved it. Jamie knows he's gone to far. Sheriff Edmund is only doing his job.
In terms of the play as a whole, it seems that Edmund's role as peacekeeper has the same overall effect as his blamelessness. It makes him the most likeable of the Tyrones, which gives the audience a window into the play. Edmund may not be the protagonist, but in his own small way, he is heroic.
Though Edmund is a whole lot different from the rest of his family, he does have one striking similarity. He's an expert escape artist. Houdini would be jealous. It's understandable, given how stressful his family is, but it's true just the same. First, there's his drinking. He doesn't turn into a mean drunk like his brother, but he still uses alcohol to forget his problems. Just like the other Tyrone men, we see him drinking all day to try and forget Mary's relapse.
Though alcohol seems to be Edmund's preferred method of escape, his walk in the fog reveals a more poignant comparison. Check out how he describes it:
I didn't meet a soul. Everything looked and sounded unreal. Nothing was what it is. That's what I wanted – to be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue and life can hide from itself. (4.1.42)
Now that sounds familiar. Who else in this family likes to hide in "fog." Ah, we remember. Check out what Edmund says about Mary's morphine haze:
The hardest thing to take is the blank wall she builds around her. Or it's more like a bank of fog in which she hides and loses herself. Deliberately, that's the hell of it! You know something in her does it deliberately – to get beyond our reach, to be rid of us, to forget we're alive! It's as if, in spite of loving us, she hated us! (4.1.84, our emphasis)
It seems Edmund likes long walks in the fog, for the exact same reason Mary likes morphine. Communing with nature is a healthier escape route than drug abuse, but there's still no denying the striking similarities to his mother. They both are quite skilled at finding ways to hide. O'Neill's use of fog as a metaphor highlights the similarities of the characters.
The defining aspect of Edmund is probably his love of poetry and philosophy. The bookshelf is lined with his favorite authors: Nietzsche, Swinburne, Wilde, and Marx among others. The group of writers that Edmund has studied is by no means philosophically uniform. Overall, however, they speak to Edmund's general rationality, distaste for the status quo, and desire to penetrate beyond the appearances of things.
We can see echoes of these authors' thinking in Edmund's huge poetic speech, in which he describes his love of the sea. This speech is really the central moment of the play for Edmund and deserves special attention. Here's a healthy sampling:
I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spay, became beauty and rhythm, […] I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself! […] when I was swimming far out […] I have had the same experience. […] Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see – and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning! (4.1.148)
Pointing out all the philosophical influences in this very long speech is enough material for a dissertation. We'll focus on just one – Nietzsche. This German thinker is one of Edmund's favorites. So, it's no surprise that we find hints of Nietzsche's concept of the übermensch in Edmund's little speech.
Übermensch can be translated as "superman" or "overman." Basically, it means an ideal form of man, who dictates his own will and transcends regular human existence. By striking out to sea alone, Edmund cuts himself off from the safe world he knows. He's dictated his own life. By communing with nature, Edmund has becoming one with a higher godlike consciousness. In that sense, Edmund has transcended normal human experience and found a deeper understanding of existence.
Of course, the übermensch is just an ideal. Edmund wasn't able to maintain this level of heightened existence. He says that after "the unseen hand" gets done reveling all of life's secrets it just as quickly "lets the veil fall" and then he's "lost in the fog again" (4.1.148). Since Edmund is unable to übermensch it up forever, he says he'll probably "always be a little in love with death" (4.1.148).
James commends his son's poetic speech by saying, "Yes, there's the making of a poet in you all right," but criticizes the death talk as "morbid craziness" (4.1.149). What James doesn't realize is that poetry and philosophy are Edmund's best tools for survival. Waxing poetic about death and despair is his way to cope. Unlike the rest of his family, Edmund has actually found something productive to do with all his anguish – create art. Edmund's talent with words and his philosophical nature are the keys through which he can escape the cycle that's trapped the rest of the Tyrones.
O'Neill gives each Tyrone a big monologue in Act IV. The monologues all talk about some past event. With Edmund, it's his experiences at sea. In a way, just like the rest of his family, Edmund has moved back in time over the course of the play. This is the earliest memory that we hear him talk about in any great detail. Mary does the same thing in an even more striking way. Check out "What's Up with the Ending?" for more detail.Edmund Tyrone Timeline